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Searching for Sky Dog

Jules Leyhe on the Duane Allman slide style.
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Duane Allman

Duane Allman

Jules Leyhe is a San Francisco Bay Area musician, a graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston, and a wicked slide player whose old-soul sensibilities, go-for-bust attitude, and deep understanding of the nuances of Duane Allman’s style earned him the nickname “Greasy.” Not surprisingly, Leyhe is also a member of my Allman Brothers tribute band, the Allmond Brothers.
—JIMMY LESLIE

The first slide player I tried to emulate was Muddy Waters, and it makes sense to start there, because he often played a Telecaster in standard tuning over a 12-bar blues form. Muddy used a metal slide on his pinky, and he didn’t do anything fancy, but he used fingerpicks to get a really gnarly sound. I went down that road for a while until I heard At Fillmore East. I remember hearing the announcer say, “Okay, the Allman Brothers Band,” and then Duane’s opening passage on “Statesboro Blues” changed my life.

YOUR PILOT’S GEAR

You need a thick glass slide to get that smooth tone, and even though Duane used his ring finger, I continued to use my pinky because my instructor at Berklee, David Tronzo (an incredible slide player himself), told me that if you can get comfortable with the pinky early on, then do it, because it makes playing chords and fretting behind the slide available further on down the road. Duane used Gibson guitars, and the sound of a thick glass slide on a Gibson with humbucking pickups is very specific and hard to mimic. That said, you don’t need to spend a bunch of money on a ’59 goldtop. I actually play a Jay Turser semi-hollowbody that I got for $100 at Flashback Guitars in Oakland, California.

You need thick strings and a high action to support the thick glass slide. I use .013-gauge D’Addario XLs. Most of Duane’s slide stuff is tuned up to open-E [E, B, E, G#, B, E; low to high], which increases the tension, so be advised. I wouldn’t go about doing that willy-nilly. I had a guy set it up for me, compensating for the tension, and raising the action. The strings need to be taught—not slack—which makes fretting difficult, but I don’t do much fretting on my slide box. I have other guitars that I use for fretted tunes from the Allman Brothers catalog, such as “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.”

Duane used a cranked Marshall, and rode his Volume knob, and that’s the Holy Grail if you can play that loudly when you’re wailing. But we mortals that play in smaller clubs need to take a practical approach. Use an amp that breaks up nicely at a reasonable volume, and maybe a couple of lower-level gain devices such as a booster and an overdrive. My bread and butter is a Reverend Hellhound 40/60 1x12 combo that breaks up smoothly when pushed. I use two different gain boosters—an Xotic EP that adds a bit of character in the presence of the gain, and a super transparent Vertex Boost that simply gives you more of what you already have. I also use Vertex’s Steel String Clean Drive, which emulates a Dumble tone. The slide responds really well to that. It’s important not to get too distorted, which can be tempting, but Duane’s tone is never hugely distorted. It has a singing quality that’s very warm and kind of beautiful.

OPEN-E

The Duane Allman slide style flows from open-E tuning. That was Elmore James’ tuning, as well, so it had been done before. But it hadn’t been heard in such a big, electrified way where you’re not simply sliding a bunch of chords around, you’re playing articulated single-note lines. As soon as you tune your guitar to open-E, and start fiddling with few Allman-style slide licks, you go, “Oh, okay. I really need this tuning to play these licks.” For a deeper understanding of open E, I recommend learning the acoustic track, “Little Martha.” It’s not a slide tune, but it’s great for learning how notes and chords lay out on the fretboard.

“STATESBORO BLUES”

“Statesboro Blues” is the quintessential Duane Allman slide tune, and a lot of core stylistic elements happen right at the top. One of the hardest parts about playing slide is the extensive right-hand muting, and the “Statesboro” intro is a great example, because Duane is calling and responding. He plays the riff along with the band, and then he plays the response lick during the breaks. It all happens in quick succession, and it simply can’t sound sloppy.

The song is in the key of D, so the 10th fret is home base. If you were tuned standard, you’d barre there with the first finger, and your first instinct might be playing “forward” between the 10th and 13th frets in a Chuck Berry style, but a slide mentality is almost a mirror image of that. Because your slide acts as the barre, the basic blues instinct leads the other direction down the fretboard from the 10th fret. In open E, there’s literally a box shape with the pentatonic notes at the 10th and 8th frets on each string, except the third string, where the minor 3rd sits at the 9th fret—kind of like “X marks the spot” at the center. Most of the “Statesboro” licks fall in that zone. Duane pretty much sticks to position playing without incorporating open strings because they don’t really work in D. Try “Stand Back” if you want to play a groovy Allman Brothers tune in the key of E that allows the open strings come into play.

Jules Leyhe

Jules Leyhe

You need to dig in with both hands attacking the strings at great velocity to get the wailing tone with the right bite that makes the harmonics pop. The slide hand is done emphatically. That’s where all the phrasing comes from, and Duane’s phrasing is not loosey-goosey at all. It’s very specific, tight, and tenacious. That’s the key to getting a blues-harp kind of tone—like Little Walter playing through a bullet mic. Little Walter also informs some of the actual vocabulary—the way some notes are slurred and the way phrases flow.

Each of the licks Duane plays during the “Statesboro Blues” intro has a little technique lesson in it. The first and third responses are very much like Little Walter harmonica licks. The second one ascends like the classic rock and roll Chuck Berry bending lick, but when you play that with a slide, it needs to be slowed down, and you have to be careful not to turn it into a harmony thing where you end up sounding the entire chord as you go up. Each digit on your right hand needs to mute the string immediately after the note is plucked, so that the next note sounds free and clear. That’s honestly the whole bag. If you can do that, then you’re set to play single-note lines. Remember, you’re thinking like a singer, and not a singer with six voices like six guitar strings, but rather one continual singing line.

“DON’T KEEP ME WONDERIN’”

“Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’” is good to work on, because it’s in the key of G, so your home pentatonic slide box is rooted at the third fret, but the solo starts on the IV chord, which is C. We can slide up to the 8th fret to get a C chord, and a lot of cool stuff is availably by simply alternating between major and minor blues. If you build the phrasing off the E and the G, it puts you in a gospel-influenced, B.B. King zone that Duane totally milks. Playing G licks out of the C position happen easily if you simply shift your right-hand thinking down a string set—by a fourth. Sliding up and down a single string to get from position to position is cool because it produces a very vocal sound along the way. The logical place to elevate the solo is the 15th fret for the G box an octave higher, where we end up!

CONTEXT IS KEY

It’s super important to have some sort of reference for your intonation when practicing slide licks. Playing along with the record is good—and so is using a looper or playing with another player—but there’s simply no substitute for working with a band if you’re trying to nail the Duane Allman style, because he’s playing a specific role in a specific group. It’s kind of like the role of a sax player in a blues band. You’re not there to play chords. You’re filling gaps and playing solos.

Notice how Duane Allman is picking behind the slide on his Les Paul.

Notice how Duane Allman is picking behind the slide on his Les Paul.

But Duane’s role was deeper than that.

Duane was essentially a second singer whose voice was slide guitar. Playing that role means that when it’s your time to play, be confident but show some restraint in the first chorus of the first solo. Entrances and exits are vital, and once you’ve exited—stay out. You’ll get another turn. The artistry of playing like Duane happens when you really express yourself—building themes rather than playing licks. That is definitely the toughest thing, creating a continuing story, building and building to a climax that makes the crowd get up and go, “Oh, my God. That was insane!”

Watch “Greasy” Jules Leyhe from Allman Brothers Band tribute the Allmond Brothers use “Statesboro Blues” to break down the Duane Allman slide style in this superb video lesson compliment to his Performance feature—“Searching for Sky Dog”—from the July 2018 issue of Guitar Player

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